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Keeping It Straight: The Bagdad Cafe

Bagdad Cafe

Bagdad Cafe

The original Bagdad Café was a testament to the joys of simple pleasures and life on the vast expanses of the Mojave Desert. The wind would howl and batter the cars driving from the most remote sections of the desert for a Saturday night of dancing, good food and camaraderie. The Bagdad Café, from the late 1940s through the 1950s, was the domain of Alice Lawrence and through her efforts it became the social center of the vast desert east of Barstow and west of Needles.

The juke box, the only one for miles around, had all the latest songs - Good Night Irene, Cry, Mule Team, Sentimental Journey. You name it and most likely it could be found on the flashy Rock-O-La spinning the large plastic (some Bakelite) disks at 78RPM and provided all the entertainment the hard-working miners and ranchers needed to finish off a bone-weary week. Of course there was the dance floor, and when things would quiet on a Saturday night, Alice would slip a few nickels into the juke box to get the party going once again.

Paul Limon, who worked the gas pumps at Bagdad, was quoted in a 1991 Los Angeles Times article, "The Bagdad Café was a happy-go-lucky, popular spot. Overheated cars from every state would stop to get water. And a lot of those people ate at the Bagdad Café."

The café succumbed to progress, closing in 1968 and by 1972, with the opening of I-40 twenty miles north, the entire town fell to ruin. What the winds could not destroy, dim-witted vandals managed to finish. In 1991, a natural gas pipeline company selected Bagdad as a storage area and the complete town site was scraped to bare earth, leaving one lone tree close to the highway along with a palm tree out by the railroad tracks. The town founded in 1883, once home to more than six hundred people with hotels, churches, a school and a thriving economy was no more.

It was 1985 when German film director Percy Adlon became enamored with the stories he had read and heard about the Bagdad Café and decided to make a film about a Bavarian lady stranded at a small desert motel and café. The result was the 1988 movie "Bagdad Café" (European title "Aus Rosenheim" - "Out of Rosenheim"). The film starred Marianne Sagebrecht, CCH Pounder and Jack Palance and is a cult favorite among Europeans. Annually thousands of overseas visitors following the Mother Road stop to visit the filming location.

So where is this Bagdad Café? The film was shot on location in Newberry Springs (about 25 miles east of Barstow) using the old Sidewinder Café as the reincarnated eatery. The tiny motel next door was pressed into service as Jasmin's home away from home, a lean-to was built on the west side of the café to serve as the motel office, a water tower was erected and an Airstream trailer brought in as a home for the Jack Palance character. When filming was completed, the owner of the café, being extremely shortsighted, insisted everything associated with the filming be removed, so the film company complied with her wishes, turning the Bagdad Café back into the nondescript, non-entity, the Sidewinder. In the early 1990's Shanty Devlin, a local character, took over the Sidewinder and, knowing a good thing when he saw it, began restoring the film version of the Bagdad Café and tourists poured through the doors. Ownership problems resulted in Shanty's departure and the original, and still shortsighted, owner returned. Down went the Bagdad Café sign and the ignominious Sidewidner reappeared.

Today the Bagdad Café is alive and well and Andrea Pruett, the current owner, is steadily working at bringing it back to the café so well known by fans of the movie. Newspapers on the walls along with photographs of both employees of the café, movie actors and crew tell the story of the filming. A water tower has been erected with the name BAGDAD CAF... emblazoned on it and a shiny, but slightly decrepit, Airstream has taken its place among the cactus and the Roadies of the world stop regularly for a great burger while enjoying the atmosphere that harkens back to the days of Alice Lawrence and the original Bagdad Café.